Monday, February 3, 2014

A 1/2 Dozen for Dan Jones

Daniel Jones, editor of the New York Times Modern Love column -- as well as a novelist and essayist in his own right -- has a new book on love, LOVE ILLUMINATED. He's popped in to answer questions about the column, his new book, good and bad writerly habits, the future of publishing, writing about love ....

Tell us about editing the Modern Love column. What sets the submissions you choose apart from the masses of submissions you receive? Anything that might surprise us about the process? 

Modern Love receives about 5000 submissions a year, which works out to roughly one in a hundred published. One common mistake for essayists is they summarize a really big story in 1500 words. Another mistake is to sound like you're blowing off steam, blaming your problems on a bad boyfriend or bad girlfriend, as if the essay is a way to justify some decision you made. And finally, a writer needs to learn something. Like in a fictional short story, there should be some movement from point A to point B, and what the person has gone through changes his or her understanding. Often the tone of a good personal essay is humble and curious. And like any good writing it helps to have concrete details, scenes and dialogue - all that good stuff. 

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick. 

You have to write badly before you write well. This doesn't change much after you've published books. If you're truly exploring something difficult, something you have to figure out, you're going to write badly. Writer's block, in my view, is not having the patience to write badly and feeling like if you can't write well right away, then forget it - you're not going to sit there any longer and maybe it's better to come back later when you can write well. Keep sitting there. However long you originally intended to devote to writing that day - 3 hours? 4? - then sit in that chair for that long. Don't give up and leave early just because you're feeling frustrated. Feeling frustrated is what will lead you to the good stuff. But not if you leave.

Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.

The most exciting moment in my writing life was when I got an agent for my first novel. I know it sounds weird to say it, but getting an agent felt, to me, like the first endorsement of my writing from someone who had no connection to me and whose interest had nothing to do with being polite or anything else. An agent has to love your work and be confident she can sell it. No agent will take you on out of kindness or pity or for any other reason. They have love your work and be able to sell it, and passing that test with anyone - being considered a writer who a businessperson is willing to pull under her wing out of financial incentive - is a good feeling. 

What’s your take on touring? 

Touring is great - if a publisher is willing to pay to send you places, go, but a good rule of thumb is to expect fewer people to show up than you expect, not more. I subscribe to the Grateful Dead philosophy of book selling: You have to build a fan base, and you don't do that by instantly being a star (at least most people don't). They read to a handful of people here and there. They give away their writing if they have to. They aren't all pinched and cramped about "owning" their writing - they say "Yes" to almost every offer. And if you do this long enough and hard enough and write well enough, you'll build a following. 

What's your worst writerly habit?

I have a lot of trouble moving forward in an article or a book until I feel like I've perfected what came before. The writer Terry McMillan once told me about her process of just getting the whole book down in almost "Dick and Jane" language - but get it down, whatever it takes. Then go back and clean it up later; rewrite it twenty times. I simply cannot write like that. I think it would be nice if I could, but I can't.

This is a vast question. Interpret it at will. What’s the future of publishing?

People are writing for publication more than ever. There's more great writing being published, for free, on blogs than there used to be published in all the top magazines. Writing is more in demand than ever and will continue to be. More people, by millions, read the New York Times than ever before. But the big change? The average writer's income is dropping, and dropping a lot. The way the publishing market has been leveled means many more people writing for the same pot of money, or maybe a smaller pot. But I'm optimistic about books and newspapers and especially storytelling. Best way to learn how to live and always will be. 

Daniel Jones, author of “Love Illuminated: Exploring Life's Most Mystifying Subject (with the Help of 50,000 Strangers),” has edited the Modern Love column in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times since its inception in October 2004. His other books include two essay anthologies, “Modern Love” and “The Bastard on the Couch,” and a novel, “After Lucy,” which was a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Award. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Elle, Parade, Real Simple, Harper’s Bazaar, and elsewhere. He lives in Northampton, MA, with his wife, writer Cathi Hanauer, and their two children.